Unleash the VanGorder, Part 1: Roles for the Incoming Defensive Freshman Class

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

How will the new freshman defensive players fit into Brian VanGorder's 4-3 scheme?

Everyone who has followed Notre Dame recruiting during the Brian Kelly era knows the story well.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the young Don Draper look-alike that followed Kelly over from Cincinnati, made an early mark as a recruiter by waiting outside of 5-star recruit Ishaq Williams' home all night and convinced him to commit to Notre Dame instead of taking a trip to Penn State. It's the kind of recruiting story you don't hear often these days and it gave Notre Dame fans the impression that Diaco was going to be an ace recruiter for years to come.

Unfortunately, that's the only significant Diaco recruiting story that emerged during his time at Notre Dame. The rest of his tenure as a recruiter was considered rather disappointing. He was more known for having strict restrictions in the body types of players that he wanted for certain positions than for the elite players he convinced to choose Notre Dame.

It's a different recruiting outlook under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and a different defensive scheme. Notre Dame's base defense is now going to be a 4-3 and that means players who were in certain positions before now will see their roles changes within the defense. We already got a sneak preview during the spring of what position the returning players will play during the upcoming season, but it's a little less clear where some of the 2014 defensive recruits will slot in.

Most of these players committed while Diaco was still the coordinator and were projected to play in his defense. Here's how I see them fitting in as freshman into Notre Dame's new defensive scheme.

Defensive lineman - Jay Hayes

Position in high school: Defensive end

Position fit at Notre Dame: As of signing day, Jay Hayes was listed at 270 pounds and it will be interesting to see what weight he reports at when he gets to South Bend in June. I'm guessing it's likely somewhere north of that.

He would have been an end in the previous 3-4 defense, but he will definitely continue to add to his frame and move inside to play defensive tackle in the new scheme. His future is as a 3 technique, the same position Sheldon Day currently plays. He might get to play early because of a lack of depth and has a chance to develop into a very good interior pass rusher.

Linebacker - Greer Martini

Position in high school: Mike linebacker

Position fit at Notre Dame: Martini committed very early in the process and would have been a fit as a Mike linebacker in a 3-4, where he would be a player that would primarily worry about playing tackle to tackle. He's not as natural a fit as a 4-3 Mike backer in VanGorder's defense. The Mike in VanGorder's scheme is more of a sideline to sideline player.

Martini is a pretty good athlete, but he will be competing against someone in his recruiting class who is a better athlete at the same position. He also needs to improve on his play recognition, which is something Brian Kelly singled out Joe Schmidt for doing very well. Here's what Kelly had to say about Schmidt:

"Some guys can’t see it, and then it makes it hard for them to react," Kelly said. "So if you’re a guy that can’t see what’s happening, you can’t use your athletic ability effectively. Joe makes up for that in that he can see it and react. All of a sudden, he takes a 4.8 (40-yard dash) and turns it into a 4.6. So his ability to see things and react changes, maybe, what some would perceive as some physical limitations and turns them into pluses."

That's a huge reason Schmidt played as the first team Mike in the spring. Martini is not going to be at the same level as Schmidt in this area as a freshman and because of that he isn't likely to see significant action as a freshman.

Defensive lineman - Daniel Cage

Position in high school: Defensive tackle

Position fit at Notre Dame: Cage was a late addition to the recruiting class so you can classify him as a VanGorder recruit. He is a much better fit as a one-gap nose guard/one technique than the two-gap nose guard he would have been in a 3-4.

He was listed at 305 on signing day and didn't look like a sloppy 305. He's already a big, strong kid who will only get stronger over the summer at Notre Dame. I mentioned the lack of depth at defensive tackle and if Tony Springmann is unable to come back healthy this season, Cage has a chance to play a role as a rotational player as a freshman and flashes enough explosive potential that he may be able to make an impact in a limited role.

Kolin Hill - Linebacker

Position in high school: Defensive end

Position fit at Notre Dame: Hill is someone whose role is going to be drastically different than what it would have been under the previous defensive regime. He would have been a Cat linebacker and projected to be similar to Prince Shembo who was fixture at Cat. Now, his fit is a little bit more unclear.

He was a relentless edge rusher that excelled as a chase player versus the run, but considering he was listed at 6'2" and 222 pounds at signing day, I'm not sure he is going to be someone who puts his hand in the ground too often for Notre Dame.

They may try him at Sam to start and that's a position he may excel at as a blitzer. He doesn't have any experience in coverage currently so it will be a steep learning curve for him in that part of the game. Could he be an edge rusher that gets a chance to rush the passer on third down early in his career? Possibly, if Notre Dame is struggling to get to the quarterback with their front four. His best bet to see playing time as a freshman is on special teams while he develops more physically and learns a new position.

Defensive lineman - Pete Mokwuah

Position in high school: Defensive tackle

Position fit at Notre Dame: Mokwuah was another relatively late add to recruiting class that, like Daniel Cage, has a future at one technique in Notre Dame's defense. He will compete with Cage to get in the defensive line rotation as a freshman. The one thing that Mokwuah has going against him is that he is going to need to re-shape his body when gets on campus. As Mike Elston said in the UND.com signing day video about Mokwuah, "He's carrying a little bit of cargo. Coach Longo will get him to transfer that into some horse power."

Being in South Bend this summer will certainly help in that department and should allow him a good chance to compete in the fall. He's a good athlete for such a big young man. If he ends up contributing this fall, I would expect him to be a player that eats up some double teams and helps versus the run.

Linebacker - Nyles Morgan

Position in high school: Mike linebacker

Position fit at Notre Dame: If you have followed recruiting even a little bit, you probably know that Morgan is someone expected to compete for the starting Mike linebacker job as soon as he gets to campus. Thankfully, Larz did an outstanding job of breaking down what Morgan can do back in February so there is no need for me to go into further detail in that area.

Morgan is going to be a stud. It would be a surprise if he didn't at least see some time this season at Mike and may even be in the mix at Will if Schmidt or Jarrett Grace are able to lock down the Mike position and VanGorder wants to move Jaylon Smith out to Sam. It's a steep learning curve for any freshman to come in and start games at linebacker. Smith and Manti Te'o both did it, but they were exceptional and didn't have much in front of them in terms of competition.

Morgan is a better athlete than the players he will be competing with. If he can come close in the other areas of the game that Schmidt excels at, then he'll be on the field a lot this fall.

Look for Part 2 next week that will break down the rest of Notre Dame's incoming freshman defensive class

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